VoIP pointing way toward complete convergence

It seems everybody’s talking about voice over IP these days.

One of the reasons is that talk is cheap when it comes to VoIP – or at least cheaper. The technology is one that cost-conscious businesses and consumers should be following since, among other things, it can immediately lower the cost of communication services. But it means a whole lot more than cheaper long-distance calls – VoIP technology is at the forefront of a dynamic evolution in the world of business communications, a move to networks that do it all.

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In the simplest of terms, VoIP converts voice and fax calls into a digital stream of data packets. These packets are transmitted over the Internet or other IP-based networks as a stream of data, circumventing the much more expensive circuit-switched voice networks that major telephone carriers have used for decades.

An entire communications industry has sprung up around VoIP, with services available in Canada from the likes of Primus, Telehop, Sprint, Vonage Canada, and Yak, among others. Canada’s major carriers are also betting on Internet Protocol (IP) technology, spending hundreds of millions of dollars on the IP communications infrastructure needed to support both voice and data transmission on their networks. In fact, Waterloo, Ont.-based broadband equipment maker Sandvine Inc. estimates there are now more than 1,100 service providers worldwide offering VoIP, either through on-line software or as a monthly package.

But cheap voice service is the tip of the iceberg. VoIP points the way to powerful communication networks that do much more than carry mere conversations. Voice and data sharing the same network is part of a grander scheme described as “network convergence” – complicated-sounding jargon for a single network that transports not just voice and data, but also high-quality real-time video cheaply and efficiently.

VoIP as the first iteration of network convergence has shown the concept is workable, solving the traffic-prioritization challenge of moving voice traffic along data networks while delivering quality that rivals traditional circuit-switched telephone networks. If you send an e-mail or file, any small delays as it travels across the Internet or a company’s local area network are not a big deal. But if the packets for a voice call are delayed, the conversation can get choppy, the sound quality falls, and in the worst case scenario a call will simply fail. The delay problem was licked by creating prioritizing schemes like multiprotocol label switching (MPLS) that distinguishes voice packets from general data. It works like a traffic cop, ensuring voice always moves ahead of data in an expeditious manner.

Now that traffic prioritization has been worked out, the stage is set for even more demanding things like video to come to the fore, bringing true network convergence.

The main issue that’s holding us back from even more compelling voice, video and data integration on a single network is a lack of business applications that can take full advantage of a converged network. The programs aren’t exactly flooding the market en masse yet, but there are a few good ones that show what’s possible.

Telemedicine, for example, where doctors can collaborate and work remotely through multimedia links. Cisco’s IP multicasting technology allows NASA doctors to view medical procedures being performed live by using three-dimensional medical image streams of up to 23 Mbps that are transferred real-time through a multicast-enabled Internet.

Closer to home, St. Joseph’s Health Care in London, Ont., earlier this year launched a “medical-grade” network to support radiology and imaging services for the hospital campus as well as to nearby family medical centres. The reach of the e-radiology services will eventually be extended to 41 additional community and rural hospitals across southwestern Ontario, allowing patient information from those areas to be sent to medical specialists.

Remote or distance learning is another example. A network-enabled multimedia instruction program was announced this week for First Nations communities. It offers IT training courses to those in remote communities, allowing students to interact with instructors via Web-based video, audio, and text messaging. Educational materials are posted on the Web and students interact with instructors and peers through Internet-enabled communications.

Contact centres, where businesses are dealing in a direct way with customers, are another area where network convergence has the potential to help companies increase customer satisfaction. Convergence allows a “multichannel” customer service centre approach that might utilize e-mail, Web and video access in addition to telephony. Folding many different types of networks into one IP-based infrastructure also means information can be collected from a variety of databases so that queries and problems can be address more rapidly – and customers are happier.

The Vancouver Airport in early April unveiled its advanced network that uses IP to integrate voice, video, data and wireless communications into a single, airport-wide communications system. This converged network will support a range of applications, including common-use terminal equipment, self-service check-in kiosks, and wireless access for business travellers. In the future, the network will even support an application called Nexus Air, which uses biometric iris scanning to speed cross-border passage.

While these examples show the potential, widespread network convergence won’t happen overnight. There’s still a lot of life left in the many, many different network technologies, equipment and cabling types companies have already invested in. But in time, convergence will weave its way through most of the on-line world as networks are expanded, upgraded and linked in an ever more seamless manner.

So for today, the industry is concentrating on the integration of voice and data. We have a multitude of VoIP carrier services and a host of telephony products, and more IP-based communication services are coming, including wireless voice. But video is next, and complete convergence – that single network supporting all types of communication – is the endgame.

— This article appeared in The Globe and Mail on April 28, 2005.

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